Before his death in 2004, performance artist and novelist Spalding Gray rehearsed his suicide just as he rehearsed his monologues—in public. Several times in the previous year, police and passersby had fished him out of the water, diverted him from the ferry railing, or talked him down from a bridge. That last intervention seems especially poignant—who could imagine anyone else talking when Spalding Gray was around?
In two decades as a solo performer, Gray exhibited his private self to a paying audience. Plaid-shirted and gray-haired, he would sit onstage at a wooden desk and spin tales of his Rhode Island childhood, adolescent experimentation, and the thrills and terrors of his adult life. He possessed a narcissism so acute it seemed to turn back in on itself, becoming open, generous. Gray would record each performance and replay it later, discovering what grabbed the listener and what didn’t. Over a period of weeks or months, he’d build his reminiscences into a more-or-less fixed script, which would then be performed and published.
His last monologue did undergo a workshop production at P.S.122, but never became fully realized. Nevertheless, Crown has published the incomplete text, fleshed out with an introduction by Francine Prose, a short story, a 9-11—inspired letter to New York, and over 100 pages of encomia originally delivered at memorials in Sag Harbor and at Lincoln Center. It makes for a rather melancholy and frustrating collection, particularly the tributes. Reading them seems, as reading the monologues does not, an uncomfortable incursion.
There’s a more productive discomfort at work in “Life Interrupted” itself, the monologue that invites the reader along as Gray suffers a car accident on a country road in Ireland and endures a half-dozen or so operations, which do not quite cure a compromised right leg, a fractured skull, and an unrelenting depression. Originally titled “Black Spot,” the piece displays plenty of Gray hallmarks: the neuroses, the logorrhea, the hyper-awareness. The mordant paradoxes are there, as is the self-obsession. After he’s thrown from the car, Gray says, “the next I knew I was lying in the road next to Kathie [his wife], and she’s saying ‘I’m dying! I’m dying!’ and I’m saying, solipsist that I am, ‘But I can’t straighten out my leg!’ And I couldn’t.” But the text lurches over plenty of black spots, lacunae that in time would have given way with correlation and anecdote. In an affecting speech, Gray’s older brother relates, “I recall his once musing that the worst thing about death was that one would be forced to stop talking.” Reading the curtailed Life Interrupted, it’s impossible not to wish, selfishly, that he hadn’t stopped talking so soon.